Staff Voices: Military Families and Holiday Separations

Staff Voices: Military Families and Holiday Separations

As 2012 is drawing to a close I find myself caught up in the usual holiday hustle-and-bustle. When I pull out my holiday cards, I am reminded that last year they read “Happy Holidays from San Diego & somewhere in the Western Pacific” – and I am thankful that this year my active-duty Navy husband is home to share in the festivities. We all know that separations are a part of military life, but holiday deployments can make this time of year particularly stressful for military families.

When working with military families who are experiencing a holiday separation it is important to keep in mind that family members are going to feel a range of emotions during any deployment and that normal feelings may be magnified during the holidays. Family members may feel disappointment that expectations aren’t being met or that the picture of what the holiday is supposed to be like isn’t happening. They may feel concern, worry, or anxiety in regards to a variety of issues: the service member’s safety, finances, children’s reactions to the holiday separation, etc. They may feel sadness that the service member is missing out on holiday traditions, or loneliness due to the service member's absence. Or they may feel anger and resentment over having to “go it alone” during the holidays. While these are all normal reactions to an abnormal and difficult situation, they may make it difficult for family members to get motivated for holiday cheer. But there are ways to minimize stress during the holiday season, despite a holiday deployment.

Military OneSource and Zero to Three are two organizations that offer a multitude of resources for military families and they both have valuable suggestions for helping to manage the stresses of a holiday separation. Military OneSource is a Department of Defense program that provides resources and support on every aspect of military life to active-duty and reserve component service members and their families. In addition to a website,, that has articles and tips on various topics related to military life (ranging from deployment to parenting to spousal employment), they have a call center and online support for consultations. In addition, they offer personal, non-medical counseling services online, via telephone, or face-to-face. Zero to Three is a national non-profit organization that supports the healthy development and well-being of infants, toddlers, and their families by providing information and training to professionals, policymakers, and parents.

Below are some helpful tips for military family members coping with holiday separations:

  • Take comfort in traditions: Holiday rituals and traditions can create fun and joyful memories for children, and participating in family traditions can help the family as a whole cope with the separation. At the same time, there may need to be changes to some traditions due to the absence of a parent. It can be helpful to take a look at family traditions and decide which ones are the most important this year and simplify ones that are time consuming. For example, the non-deployed parent may not have the time (or energy!) to cut a live tree, but putting up and decorating a special tree could be a way to still keep this tradition alive.
  • Do something you wouldn’t ordinarily do: Alternatively (or additionally), create a new tradition by doing something different this year. For example, create a gingerbread house with your children or volunteer at a local soup kitchen. Next year, the deployed service member can share in the new tradition.
  • Surround yourself with people: Connecting with others who are going through the same thing can prevent loneliness. There are generally numerous community events for families of deployed service members. Other possibilities include attending holiday school events, visiting with friends or family, or volunteering.
  • Reduce holiday stress: It’s easy to get caught up in all that needs to be done during this time of year, especially with a deployed family member. Remember to enjoy the season - take time out to participate in enjoyable activities (e.g., go see a holiday lights display or go ice skating). It’s also important not to forget engage in self-care!


  • Remember routines: The holiday season can consist of a whirlwind of events - family visits, school plays and last-minute shopping are just some examples of activities that can throw a kink in a child's schedule. For a young child who is missing a deployed parent, the comfort of knowing what to expect can be particularly important, so maintaining a normal daily routine as much as possible can help children feel safe and secure.
  • Be realistic about what to expect: Expect that there will be changes due to the service member’s deployment. Accept that this holiday season will be different and don’t fall into the trap of expecting everything to be perfect. Be flexible with phone calls - it is not always possible for a deployed service member to call home on the holiday itself. Also be prepared for a potential post-holiday let-down and keep support systems in place as January rolls around.
  • Keep service members connected: It is also important to keep the deployed service member connected during the holidays, as they are also missing out on family traditions.  Mail a holiday card you helped the children decorate. Take pictures while decorating and during celebrations and then use them to create a holiday scrapbook for the deployed service member. Send a recording of the children singing Christmas carols. Have the deployed parent make a recording of themselves reading a favorite holiday story. Videotape the children opening gifts, lighting holiday candles, decorating cookies, etc. and send it to the deployed service member. Or keep a photo of the deployed parent nearby during family activities.  There are many creative ways to keep deployed service members involved in holiday traditions, even from half a world away!

Like many other military separations, holiday deployments can be a challenging experience.  But at the same time, they can be an opportunity for military families to connect with one another and come together in new ways.

For more information:
Military OneSource:
Zero to Three: